, 1941, MGM (starring Robert Taylor, Lana Turner, Van Heflin and Edward Arnold; directed by Mervyn LeRoy)
MGM wasn't known for crime dramas or gangster pictures; that was Warner Bros. territory. MGM was famous for its big budget epics and its sophisticated leading men and women. Johnny Eager doesn't look like other gangster movies of its time as a result -- it doesn't have the gritty realism of The Public Enemy
and Angels with Dirty Faces
or the seediness of Little Caesar. MGM provides the genre with a bigger budget for flashier-looking sets, and glamorous leads in the form of Robert Taylor and Lana Turner.
Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor) is a racketeer looking to break the big time with his new dog track, but is getting heat from District Attorney Farrell (Edward Arnold). He is further distracted by a love affair with Lisbeth (Lana Turner), an uptown society girl who just happens to be the D.A.'s daughter, double-crossing underlings, and rival mobsters.
Like most gangster pictures, this is a story of moral redemption that comes too late. Johnny is not a nice kid who just fell in with the wrong guys, he's not a basically good guy who was tempted by the easy money of organized crime, and he's not just trying to make enough dough to get his mom that operation she needs. Johnny Eager is thug and a criminal. He's on top because he looks out for himself and himself alone. He trusts no one, and he's not above using those closest to him to get what he wants, including Lisbeth.
From the start of their relationship, Lisbeth is clearly out of Johnny's league – not just because she's a rich society girl, but because she's a nice girl, and an educated one at that. When they first meet, she quotes Cyrano De Bergerac to him (not a randomly chosen piece, that). He's intrigued by her because she's a challenge and a change of pace; she's attracted to him because he's thrilling and dangerous. She just doesn't realize how dangerous.
No sooner do she and Johnny hook up than she starts trying to reform him. She is even so charmingly naive as to postulate aloud that maybe the reason he went down the crooked path is that he never had a dog when he was a kid. She trusts Johnny implicitly; she believes him when he says he loves her, and that's what makes it so easy for him to take advantage of her.
Lisbeth is, in fact, very much like Johnny's improbable pal Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin), the well-educated and verbose right-hand man who tries to dilute his self-loathing with a brandy bottle. The movie never makes it clear exactly how these two guys became friends, but it spends a good deal of time dissecting why they remain friends. Johnny keeps Jeff around because, as Jeff puts it, "even Johnny Eager needs one friend." Jeff clings to Johnny for the same reasons Lisbeth does -- because he's attractive and powerful, and because Jeff and Lisbeth both see something in Johnny that even he himself doesn't know exists: a loving heart. Jeff tries to act as a sort of moral compass to Johnny, but usually all he gets for his trouble is some harsh words or a belt in the mouth.
When D.A. Farrell learns that Johnny Eager is seeing his only daughter (indeed, that he snatched her unceremoniously from the arms of her upright, staid, rich and extremely dull fiancé), he calls Johnny into his office for a warning: leave Lisbeth alone, or he'll personally see to it that Johnny will be sent back up the river. Eagle-eyed movie fans will recognize this scene as the one Steve Martin used in his landmark detective spoof Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
Johnny, not one to accept threats lightly, plays the ace up his sleeve. He stages a fake murder, makes Lisbeth believe she's killed the man, and promises to cover it up. Then he goes to the D.A. and threatens to spill it all unless Farrell lifts the ban on his dog racing track. Farrell is appalled, but admits that Johnny's got the upper hand and relents.
Finally, things are going Johnny's way. His dog track will open on time, his double-crossing associates have been dealt with -- permanently -- and he's got the D.A. off his back. The only thing that can stop him now is his conscience, when he discovers that he has one.
Lisbeth, tortured by guilt over her "murderous" act, is on the edge of a nervous breakdown when Johnny finally comes to see her, and when he realizes what she's prepared to sacrifice because she loves him, something finally clicks inside of him. He confesses to her that the murder was a fake -- the gun was loaded with blanks, she didn't kill anyone, the man she shot is fine and walking around as if nothing happened. But she thinks he's just trying to ease her conscience, so he sets out to prove it to her.
The plot becomes muddled in the end, with more double-crossing henchmen at the last minute, leading to a pitched gun battle in the street, but not before Johnny has righted all his wrongs and sent Lisbeth back to the stable and loving arms of her dull fiancé, for her own good.
Despite the hurried feeling of the last ten minutes or so, this is a well-crafted story with some very nice plot touches along the way. There is a recurring motif with an honest cop, Badge No. 711, who is troublesome to Johnny's gambling rackets. Lisbeth's reference to Cyrano early on in the film serves as a kind of thematic backdrop -- just as Cyrano denied his love to spare Roxanne, Johnny pushes Lisbeth away because he knows he's no good for her.
Performances are all top-notch, from the leads on down to Connie Gilchrist and Robin Raymond in one brief scene as Johnny's aunt and young cousin. The only weak link might be Robert Sterling as the hapless cuckolded fiancé, but his role doesn't give him much to do but stand around and look like a martyr. Lana Turner is breathtaking to look at, and her acting ability never fails to catch me off-guard. Robert Taylor is a commanding presence as Johnny and Edward Arnold does his typical rich-white-conservative guy -- if you've seen him in any other movie, you've probably seen him play the same role. But it's Van Heflin who marches off with the acting honors (and the Academy statuette) as the tortured, philosophical lush.
Director Mervyn LeRoy draws on his experience with gritty crime dramas such as Little Caesar
and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
, and infuses it with typical MGM gloss. It's a cleaner, less dangerous-looking underworld, but what it loses in violent realism, it makes up for in an intellectual bent that Warner Bros. couldn't match. Unfortunately, not yet available on DVD.